By Sriya Reddy
Elizabeth Wattley passed by The Forest Theater daily when she went to school. It was a staple in the community and Wattley knew it was important.
“This building has always been part of my life,” Wattley said. “I’ve always driven by it and felt like something is here. Some type of energy.”
She knows the history and heard the stories of her father seeing the film Imitation of Life up in the balcony of the then segregated theater in 1959. Now, Wattley is the president and CEO of Forest Forward, leading the initiative to revitalize Forest Theater.
On Thursday, Forest Forward announced its plans to preserve the historic space and create a cultural hub in South Dallas. The team is planning on adding arts education elements like a motion room, podcasting space and recording booth. There will also be a cafe and the first rooftop bar in South Dallas.
“I look at this space as a place that someone can spend all day in,” Ashley Wilson, director of strategic partnerships, said.
Wilson said that she is looking forward to there being a safe space of entertainment in this community and that bringing arts education to South Dallas is important,
“This place is centered on the community and what their needs and desires are,” Wilson said. “We’ve taken the time to really listen to the community and really create better opportunities and equity.”
Although the pandemic may derail Forest Forward’s plans, the aspirational reopening date of the Forest Theater will be 2024, the 75th anniversary of its opening.
Forest Theater opened in 1949 and served a primarily Jewish population that lived in South Dallas. It began to serve Black people in the ’50s after white flight changed the demographics of the area and it became a cultural hub. However, as decades passed, the theater diminished and was not able to be brought back to life.
Forest Forward obtained the property in 2017 with the goal of restoring and reclaiming the space. Wattley said that the rejuvenated Forest Theater means bringing opportunity and economic growth to South Dallas.
“It is exciting to be able to be part of something that will serve the community in such an important way,” she said. “It is a real feeling of reclaiming, and it’s something that is open and accessible to everyone.
Alongside the theater itself, Forest Forward hopes to have a larger plan of neighborhood revitalization in the area, including mixed-income housing nearby. Wattley said that one of the keys to economic growth in the area is fostering greater population density.
Forest Forward is now aiming to raise $75.215 million, in reference to South Dallas’ 75215 zip code, for Forest Theater renovations. Donations can be given at https://www.forestforward.com/donation-form/.